Book Review: Ladies of the Field


Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search For Adventure, by Amanda Adams.

Recently I have needed something to remind me of why I love archaeology and why I do what do.  This book has done that for me and more.

Ladies of the Field, by Amanda Adams tells the story of seven of archaeology’s early women trail blazers. Women who broke down gender lines and stood out in what was then very much a man’s world. She examines how each of these amazing women got into archaeology and why they loved it so much.

The women in the book span about 70 years from the earliest days of archaeology in the 1870s with Amelia Edwards to Dorothy Garrod, working in the 1930s & 40s; but they are all wildly influential and inspiring. Their lust for adventure, travel and archaeology so often mimics my own. I see myself in their shoes, and I know that they, unlike so many people in my life, would actually understand me.

Adams suggests; “Perhaps a certain type of personality is attracted to archaeology – an adventurous one to be sure. A little headstrong. Passionate and willing to take risks.”

As an archaeologist myself, I know many women archaeologists and many of us fit this description, but I have also found that most of my lasting friendships have been with other archaeologists. – Even many of the friends I have met and worked with in the museums field are often archaeologists first. It just seems to be how things work.

In 1968 Dorothy Garrod was awarded the Grand Gold medal for her work in archaeology by the Society of Antiquaries of London – which up until that point had been an entirely male institution. During her acceptance speech she commented on the growing number of women in archaeology – She hinted that the flood gates were opening, it was just the beginning.

However, while reading Ladies in the Field it became very apparent that even though these women were some of the most important players in the development of archaeology as we know it today, I was largely learning about them for the first time.

Gertrude Bell set up the Baghdad Museum in Iraq (then Mesopotamia) and was single handedly responsible for drafting legislation that would keep Mesopotamian artefacts in the country – at a time when artefacts were whisked away to the West faster then the soil they came from could settle.

Dorothy Garrod worked tirelessly organizing data on prehistoric settlements throughout the old world, basically developing a chronology of the prehistoric world allowing for us to study the prehistoric world as a cohesive whole.

These feats are astounding! I have to wonder why I did not know these women’s names? Why have all the early archaeologists I have learned about in school been men? When these women clearly deserve to be counted in the ranks of Flinders Petrie and Leonard Woolley, etc..

It is some comfort that today archaeology programmes all over the world are dominated by women, so maybe Garrod was right – the flood gates have opened.  So let’s change the male domination of the history of archaeology and talk about these women with undergrads, write about them, as Amanda Adams has done, and allow them to take their rightful spots in history.

I will leave you with another quote from Ladies of the Field: 

“Archaeology has never been work for the faint of heart. It takes some daring. Its reward is the process (never the treasure alone): the experience of excavation and the little things you find along the way.”

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About newmuseumkat

I am a museologist and an archaeologist. I love both, but they work best when mixed together.
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